New Horizons targets mysterious red object a billion miles beyond Pluto


After swooping past Pluto last summer, NASA says its New Horizons spacecraft has a new target: 2014 MU69. The agency this week revealed the spacecraft will travel 600 million miles over the next few years—about nine miles per second—before arriving at the distant Kuiper Belt object (KBO) on Jan. 1, 2019.

According to NASA, MU69 is currently situated in the “cold classical region” of the Kuiper Belt, which scientists believe contains some of our solar system’s most prehistoric material. As Amanda Zangari, a New Horizons post-doctoral researcher put it, MU69 is “one of the ancient building blocks of the planets.”

Scientists believe MU69, which measures about 20-30 miles in diameter, is about one billion miles beyond Pluto; New Horizons, meanwhile, is currently 3.4 million miles from Earth. Observations made by the Hubble Space Telescope suggest the KBO is a reddish color—possibly more red than Pluto, according to researchers.

The color is important because it gives scientists an idea of what type of Kuiper Belt object MU69 is.

In addition to details about MU69, NASA scientists also discussed new information regarding Pluto at the American Astronomical Society Division for Planetary Sciences (DPS).

One of the things scientists discussed was the possibility of clouds on Pluto, backing up evidence discovered earlier this year. Since its historic flyby, New Horizons has transmitted about 99 percent of its data and should complete the remainder by Oct. 23.

“If there are clouds, it would mean the weather on Pluto is even more complex than we imagined,” said Alan Stern, principal investigator from Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado.

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